Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Do Teachers Need Credentials?

I'm almost afraid to bring this up, because it's so controversial. But after homeschooling for 8 1/2 years and teaching in the public school system, I think this question has to be asked.

It's generally assumed that credentialing for teachers is very valuable. Liberals and conservatives, up to and including President Bush, advocate for teacher licensing. Every new president's education program seems to require more in terms of licensing for teachers. When a teacher has a teaching credential and specialization in their major, they are considered "highly qualified," and if they don't have the credential, they aren't. In Colorado, someone with a teaching credential is fairly easily able to add a new area of specialization - just take a test, or a few classes, or prove you've had some experience, and voila - you can teach it! But if you don't have a teaching credential, you may as well forget it - you must have that little piece of paper.

So what exactly do teachers have to study in order to get that piece of paper? I was planning to be a teacher for a while; I took the majority of the classes, in an excellent private university. We studied child development - material most of America learns by watching their children grow. We studied classroom management - how to get 30 kids to sit down, shut up, and listen. We studied motivation - how to get 30 kids interested enough that they actually learn something. We studied choosing curriculum - something most teachers don't get to do, because they are told which curriculum the school uses, and that's it. We studied lesson planning - something else teachers generally don't do a lot of since the textbook tells them what to do every day and they really don't have time to do anyway. And we learned a lot of technical jargon and contemporary learning theories, all of which are completely out-of-date and have been replaced by a lot of new technical jargon and new learning theories (and I graduated only 20 years ago).

Much of what teachers study is a waste of time. Most teachers learn to teach by experience and imitation. If they are fortunate, they have a positive experience and draw a good teacher to imitate; if not, they have to make the best of what they have. Many good teachers are already teachers at heart before they take a single class. Hours spent sitting in a classroom listening to lectures do not make a teacher; there is no substitute for actually teaching, a few kids at a time and eventually up to a whole class. And any kind of teaching or other leadership can make that happen - Sunday School, afterschool clubs, piano lessons, homeschool co-op groups, anything that requires the adult to lead groups of kids.

I'm not against teacher training; I'm against the bureaucracies that entrench requirements for classes like "Psychology Applied to Teaching." I'm against requiring a piece of paper rather than actual experience. I'm against a system that allows mediocre and even poor teachers into the classroom and eliminates excellent ones, simply because they haven't taken classes they don't need. I'm against judging the quality of teaching experience based on whether it happened in a school or in another context, and eliminating anything that didn't happen in a school. I'm against principals who don't help beginning teachers with potential, and experienced teachers who seem to think they are better simply because they've taken some classes. I'm against an education establishment who thinks they "paid their dues" so you should have to, too, and who judges the quality of a teacher and the value of their work based on how much technical jargon they can parrot back and whether they understand "contemporary learning theory" - whatever that happened to be when a particular teacher graduated from school.

Instead, I'm in favor of teachers being given guided experience. I'm in favor of teachers' knowledge being given as it's needed, rather than dumped on them before they can use it. I'm in favor of all teaching experience being taken into account. I'm in favor of principals providing support and training for their teachers, and more experienced teachers receiving bonuses for spending off-duty hours helping less experienced ones improve. I'm in favor of good teachers being paid based on their quality, not the number of years they've been there; and poor teachers being eliminated even if they've been teaching for years. I'm in favor of testing that is carefully designed to test the most important things - and then I'm in favor of teaching to that kind of test, and of judging teachers' performance based on that testing. I'm in favor of our kids being exposed to "the best of the best," that lets John Elway teach football and Paganini teach violin even if they haven't taken years of teacher training classes and student teaching.

The current teacher training system is just not working. I see no reason why we should be graduating high schoolers who can't read; why businesses should be complaining about not being able to find workers who meet basic minimum standards. Obviously the classes teachers are taking are not providing what they really need in the classroom. In the meantime, we are eliminating teachers who have years of experience teaching, who have great reputations and turn out excited and motivated students, and who are outstanding in their fields, simply because they don't have a piece of paper that says they've been trained to teach. We are requiring those teachers - who can make more money in the private sector - to take dozens of classes they don't need, and to be apprenticed under a "master teacher," who may not be as a good teacher as they are and for whom they will most likely end up grading papers for a semester, just so they can get that credential.

And what does the testing show about the need for those credentials? It shows that they provide no benefit whatsoever when it comes to results. Homeschooling students whose parents have credentials don't score any higher than those whose parents have a high school diploma. Students in public schools, whose teachers are required to have credentials, score lower than students in private schools, though their teachers often have no credentials at all, and lower than homeschooled students as well. Michael Smith has an interesting article on this subject, and on why high academic achievement among homeschoolers is so threatening to the education establishment. Essentially, his argument is that when homeschoolers do well, it destroys the fundamental assertion of so many education experts - that credentialling is not necessary to produce good teachers. And I think he's right.

14 comments:

Melinda S. said...

One interesting quote I read recently was from a top-notch college professor. He said he could teach large numbers of 18yo's, and get paid well for doing so. But he was not "qualified" to teach relatively small groups of 17.5yo's!

Kimmer said...

Awesome post--your passion for this really shines through, and the subject is very though-provoking.

So here goes. How do you determine what makes an effective teacher? Is it one whose students score well on standardized tests? Is it one that the students love? It seems to be a very subjective determination in a world that wants objectivity above all else.

I think that many people see education as being a cakewalk, an easy field. Where I went to school, an ed degree was referred to as an "MRS:" something that would kill time until you got married.

When I first heard about homeschooling, I was offended. "I worked really hard in those classes--what makes someone think that they can teach without any training?"

I think that teaching programs are trying to integrate more hands on classroom time into their programs. When my husband was taking his ed classes, they were expected to have time in a classroom every semester, to start getting a feel of how a classroom works.

I don't have an answer here, just thoughts. I don't know that there is a good single answer for everyone. I know the answer for me, though. ;)

Shawna said...

As a former public and private school teacher myself, who went through the credentialing process...you have said it so well here that there is very little else to say. Teachers learn their material and learn how to teach by teaching. The credential itself doesn't really mean anyhing...and there are so many very qualified teachers out there who have never been "trained" to teach. The system is definitely flawed in this regard.

Crimson Wife said...

My sister-in-law has a B.Ed. and teaches math in a government-run school. She told me that the teacher preparation program she attended was a complete joke- her (private) high school math classes were harder!

~*~ Jennifer ~*~ said...

Interesting that you should say this (especially considering the CA court case this week) LOL I followed a link from Lisa's blog. Nice read!

I agree. Ü

Marcy Muser said...

Kimmer,

I've left this dangling for so long I doubt you're even checking the answer any more, but I'm intrigued by the concept so I'm coming back to it.

How do you determine what makes an effective teacher? In a classroom situation, this is a tough one, and I agree that there aren't many objective answers. You probably know what I mean when I say, "When you see a good teacher teach, you just know." Standardized tests are not the answer.

To me, the good teacher is the one who is able to instill in their students a deep love for - even a passion for - learning. It's someone who understands that their primary job is to teach kids how to learn, not to cram facts into their heads. Once kids are excited about learning, they will do the job themselves.

The top quality I'd look for in determining a good teacher is directed enthusiasm. A good teacher is excited - about their subject, about their students, about learning, and about life. Kids aren't bored in their classes, because the teacher's enthusiasm shines through. I'd say that's the most important quality by far. An enthusiastic teacher doesn't mind spending time outside of class figuring out how to best communicate their excitement about a subject to their student - but they don't waste their own or their student's time on busywork, either.

Enthusiasm is something that's hard to fake or to manufacture. Teachers ought to be evaluated for this early and repeatedly in their teaching courses and student teaching experiences - and they ought also to be evaluated on the basis of it during their careers.

Other necessary qualities in a good teacher? Self-discipline - a willingness to do the unpleasant tasks in order to achieve the desired results (Who really loves grading papers? But they are a necessary part of the learning experience.) Teachability - a willingness to accept instruction and guidance from more experienced teachers. Fairness - a refusal to favor one (or several) student(s) over others.

That's all I can do for now. I hope it's gotten you started. How do you think we should determine who is a good teacher and who isn't?

Marcy Muser said...

Kimmer,

I've left this dangling for so long I doubt you're even checking the answer any more, but I'm intrigued by the concept so I'm coming back to it.

How do you determine what makes an effective teacher? In a classroom situation, this is a tough one, and I agree that there aren't many objective answers. You probably know what I mean when I say, "When you see a good teacher teach, you just know." Standardized tests are not the answer.

To me, the good teacher is the one who is able to instill in their students a deep love for - even a passion for - learning. It's someone who understands that their primary job is to teach kids how to learn, not to cram facts into their heads. Once kids are excited about learning, they will do the job themselves.

The top quality I'd look for in determining a good teacher is directed enthusiasm. A good teacher is excited - about their subject, about their students, about learning, and about life. Kids aren't bored in their classes, because the teacher's enthusiasm shines through. I'd say that's the most important quality by far. An enthusiastic teacher doesn't mind spending time outside of class figuring out how to best communicate their excitement about a subject to their student - but they don't waste their own or their student's time on busywork, either.

Enthusiasm is something that's hard to fake or to manufacture. Teachers ought to be evaluated for this early and repeatedly in their teaching courses and student teaching experiences - and they ought also to be evaluated on the basis of it during their careers.

Other necessary qualities in a good teacher? Self-discipline - a willingness to do the unpleasant tasks in order to achieve the desired results (Who really loves grading papers? But they are a necessary part of the learning experience.) Teachability - a willingness to accept instruction and guidance from more experienced teachers. Fairness - a refusal to favor one (or several) student(s) over others.

That's all I can do for now. I hope it's gotten you started. How do you think we should determine who is a good teacher and who isn't?

Anonymous said...

Kimmer -

In CA, even if you have a credential from another state, you still have to go to school and get a CA credential. Isn't that interesting considering CA is very low on the test scores.

I think we need a class action law suit, they had a successful one in L.A. The applicants sued the school district because they had a test to become a teacher, the applicants sued on the grounds that the test was not applicable to the grade level. They won! If enough people sued the system, they could prove that the teacher development courses are not applicable to actual teaching. Private schools have teaching courses that are 2 weeks long. They have great results.

Marcy Muser said...

Anonymous,

I have mixed feelings about this. I DO think classroom teachers need teacher education - and more than just a couple of weeks' worth. Learning to manage a classroom full of 30 kids is a BIG job. I'm not convinced a lot of the classes teachers are taking now are all that helpful; in my opinion, they need classes on practical issues like discipline, motivation, grouping (and individualization), and so on, and they tend to get a lot more on theoretical issues. They DO need to know their subject matter (how can you teach long division if you can't do it yourself?). And they need training in how to instill in kids a lifelong love of learning (again, something they rarely get in teacher ed classes).

I think teacher education needs to be completely revamped in this country in order to give teachers what they are really going to need.

Homeschooling parents, on the other hand, don't really need all that. They need the ability to learn, a love for their child, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to help their child succeed. A teaching credential is a waste of time for a homeschooling parent.

Marcy Muser said...

Anonymous,

I have mixed feelings about this. I DO think classroom teachers need teacher education - and more than just a couple of weeks' worth. Learning to manage a classroom full of 30 kids is a BIG job. I'm not convinced a lot of the classes teachers are taking now are all that helpful; in my opinion, they need classes on practical issues like discipline, motivation, grouping (and individualization), and so on, and they tend to get a lot more on theoretical issues. They DO need to know their subject matter (how can you teach long division if you can't do it yourself?). And they need training in how to instill in kids a lifelong love of learning (again, something they rarely get in teacher ed classes).

I think teacher education needs to be completely revamped in this country in order to give teachers what they are really going to need.

Homeschooling parents, on the other hand, don't really need all that. They need the ability to learn, a love for their child, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to help their child succeed. A teaching credential is a waste of time for a homeschooling parent.

Me said...

I agree with many of your assertions and disagree with others.

I teach in California, so I can only comment on the process I had to go through. My credentialing program was challenging and provoking. In order to be admitted to this program, I had to take the SSAT for English and the PRAXIS (write two essays based on two different poems in one hour). After passing both (on the first try) I had to gather letters, of recommendation and have an average of a "B" as an English major. Please note: other credentialing programs in California do not require as much, but this program admitted only "highly qualified" English majors and math/science majors. Therefore, as long as I met the requirements, I was admitted to the tuition free credential program. Yes, tuition free.

This was a two year program where I learned theory about the following:
brain/cognitive abilities
learning styles: intr, intro, auditory, visual, kinesthetic etc.
standard based curriculum writing
class management
special education
etc. (too many to list)

I had to not only learn theory, but put into practice and evaluate the results. The most important component, in my opinion, was curriculum writing. My curriculum had to be: standard based (upon grade level), innovative, cater to all learns, technology based, and highly rigorous. The rigor was established by writing rubrics. Rubrics had to establish specific criteria, and the goal was to bring each child up to "grade level" or beyond. Most of my units involved lessons that would take over a month to teach. Now, I'm not saying length has anything to do with rigor...instead length had to do a lot with the fact that my lessons had to cater to all learners (intra, intro, visual, auditory, kinesthetic).

By the end of this two year program, I had to present my portfolio of units with concrete examples and analysis. This presentation was done for a panel of 5 "experts". In other words, I had to prove/show that not only had I learned theory, but that I actually knew how to teach. If I had not proven the rigor of my units and my skills as a teacher, then I would not have earned a teaching credential.

It is a great disservice to students, parents, and society to teach by a text book. If a teacher is simply following the textbook guide and asking students to read and answer question, then those students are being set up for failure. It is our calling as public servants to teach students to be critical thinkers and analytical writers.

Me said...

I forgot to mention....
Private school's have "great test results" for other reasons that have nothing to do with credentials.

Statistically, the large majority of students who attend private schools are:
students whose parents are college educated.
middle class or upper middle class
students whose parents know the value of education and instill this in their children

Therefore, they are likely to do better on tests. Please read Freakonomics and Tipping Point for other examples.

Here's another example, growing up I have a two neighbors who attended private schools in Ventura County from 6th to 12th grade. Their work mostly consisted of read the chapter and answer the question. They only wrote one essay per year and this was only done at the end of each year. On the other hand, I attend public schools in Venture County from Kinder to 12th grade, and beginning in 7th grade, I had to write an average of 4 major essays a year. Please note: these were essays and not reports. My essays had to include analytical commentaries, and I was not allowed to use the pronouns "I", "me", "you", "us" or "we" in my writing.

Marcy Muser said...

Me,

I have a couple of thoughts on your comment here.

1) Your teacher credentialing program hardly compares to the programs most teachers go through, even in California. You were, as you stated yourself, in a highly rigorous program, one that required you to be a "highly qualified" English or math/science major - they chose from among the best, and then taught you something exceptional. This is not the norm. In fact, most credentialing programs can't afford to be nearly that selective; they take the applicants they get and try to make teachers out of them. And most of their instruction has little to do with what a teacher really does on a day-to-day basis.

2) I'm impressed with what you were required to do; however, I don't think it's necessary when teaching individual kids. And quite frankly, while many teachers are taught to create interesting and creative lesson plans, few of them actually do that every day in practice. They simply don't have the time. As an English classroom teacher, for example, you can perhaps relate to this - you must figure out what you're going to teach, teach 6 or 7 hours every day, then come home to grade countless papers. When do you have time to design these wonderful lesson plans? The last time I taught in the classroom (a couple of years ago now), I was required to create a syllabus and show how every day's activities fit into the state's standards for that subject. I didn't have time to design an entire curriculum for a year, ensuring that my instruction covered every topic that had to be included for that year. And neither do most teachers. If you were able to design an entire year's curriculum during your two-year program, you were ahead of the vast majority of teachers. And keeping in mind it took you a TWO-year program to design ONE year's worth of work, what would you offer your students the following year (since many of the students you had the first year would be returning the second year)? For most classroom teachers, time constraints make it difficult NOT to teach from the textbook.

3) If your writing here is an example of what earned you a B in English, I'm sorry to say it, but I'm afraid you were cheated a bit in your education somewhere. Your writing includes a number of punctuation and usage errors - errors that are not typos (I expect those in blog entries and comments as we type quickly and don't proofread carefully). I realize it's important for students to be able to express their thoughts in careful, critical, analytical writing - but they undermine their points if they make grammatical errors.

4) I completely agree with your last paragraph. Unfortunately, I think our current education system makes it difficult if not impossible to create such critical thinkers and analytical writers. Teachers are far too busy and overloaded, and most are nowhere near adequately prepared. Curriculum is designed "to meet state standards" without teaching critical thinking or analytical writing. And students are forced into overcrowded classrooms, where they spend most of their time waiting to get out rather than really engaged in the learning process.

If you learned how to teach by teaching rather than by sitting in a classroom, you were the exception rather than the rule. Most teachers spend a fairly limited amount of time teaching, and a lot of time taking notes and reading about teaching theory, most of which doesn't make them better teachers. More credentialing programs like yours might help - if they could be arranged to fit the average teacher rather than the carefully selected, well-above-average one. As I said in one of my comments above, I believe most of the classes teachers currently take are not all that helpful.

Marcy Muser said...

Me,

I understand your feelings about private schools, and I agree that some require little beyond "read the chapter and answer the questions." Of course, the majority of public schools don't require any more than that either - though some do. And in many public schools (as in some private schools), teachers accept "essays" that are poor quality, knowing that the particular students can't produce anything better.

That said, my point still stands: students in private schools do better than those in public schools IN SPITE OF the fact that many of their teachers do not have credentials. Certainly the parents' economic status and interest in education have something to do with their test results as well; but the lack of credentialed teachers apparently doesn't lower their test scores.

And I am aware of NO research that shows that credentialed teachers make ANY difference in the quality of the students' work - not in public schools, private schools, or home schools; not in standardized tests nor in any other measures of judgement. In fact, most research suggests exactly the opposite - whether a teacher has a credential or not does NOT make any difference in the work their students put out.

Quality teacher education needs to keep that in mind. We need to look at the research and determine what DOES make a difference in student work, and do what we can to provide that. If we have to train our teachers differently in order to accomplish that, fine. More money doesn't seem to be the ticket; more credentialed teachers doesn't appear to make any difference either. So what does? Smaller classes; more parental involvement; quicker feedback for students; a teacher enthusiastic about their students and their subject matter. A credential doesn't provide this - thus credentials (in their present form) are worthless.